Improving the quality of the Sri Lankan passport

Dec 23, 2013 (LBO) – I travel on a Sri Lanka passport. The hassle is so great that I regret not getting another passport. My life was made simpler, for a short time, by the wonderful one-year SAARC visa that allowed me visa-free access to our neighboring countries.

I still have it, but now it is given for three months at a time. I’ve already had to decline one invitation to speak in Bangladesh because I lacked the time to get the SAARC visa renewed.

The problem has several aspects: According to the 2013 Henley Visa Restriction Index, Sri Lankans need visas to enter all but 38 countries. In contrast, Bangladeshis and North Koreans can go to 41 countries without visas. Who is worse than us? Just a handful. Afghans can only go to 28 countries visa-less (and we need a visa to visit Afghanistan). Iraq to 31. And yet, they carefully screen Sri Lankans wishing to visit Baghdad; compel us to enter data on a dysfunctional online system and all that.

Now compare this with countries Sri Lankanslike to settle in: UK (173 countries without a visa); USA (172); Norway and Canada (170); New Zealand (168); Australia (167). I am not saying people move to these countries for this reason alone, but it sure looks sweet from where I sit.

The paperwork needed to get a visa and the fees are another part of the problem. Then there is the time taken and the hassle. Many a time, the first thing I do on returning from a trip is apply for another visa. And the pile of paper they ask for. I have great help, but all this costs money. These burdens amount to hidden taxes on Sri Lankan travelers.

Machang, the film, best illustrates how we dug ourselves into this hole. Every lie that can be told has been told by Sri Lankans seeking to leave this blessed isle.

The war is now behind us. People are coming back. Surely, it’s time for some progress to be made on the visa front. The model is the Visa Waiver Agreement between Sri Lanka and Seychelles (one of the 38), signed earlier this year. I hope External Affairs makes visa waiver agreements an integral element in all negotiations that are part of collecting African and Central Asian votes to fend off UN resolutions. Now that the electronic visa authorization system is in place and working well, the government has a chip to negotiate with.

Even better, why can we not get the same kind of agreement with countries that Sri Lankans actually visit in numbers? Bangladesh? China? Hong Kong, where we had visa-free access until a few years back? Thailand? Myanmar?

In Nigeria, every minister has to sign a performance contract with the President, and is held accountable. Good idea.

Let’s include reduction of visa hassles for Sri Lankans in the performance contract for the Minister of External Affairs. Do better than North Korea or you’re out. Prevent the erosion of the value of the SAARC visa or we’ll find something else for you to do.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.